December 9, 2018


Horror and Eternity (Scott Beauchamp, Summer 2018, Modern Age)

Carpenter's The Thing strongly echoes the same themes first put forth by the American master of nihilist horror, H. P. Lovecraft. It isn't a stretch to say that most contemporary horror as we encounter it in movies and on television was influenced by Lovecraft's disdainful, almost paranoid hatred for the world as it is. French novelist Michel Houellebecq writes in his book-length appreciation of Lovecraft, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life:

Few beings have ever been so impregnated, pierced to the core, by the conviction of the absolute futility of human aspiration. The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition towards chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear. Other races in turn will appear and disappear. The skies will be glacial and empty, traversed by the feeble light of half-dead stars. These too will disappear. Everything will disappear. And human actions are as free and stripped of meaning as the unfettered movement of the elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure "Victorian fictions." All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact, and radiant.

Lovecraft's wholly materialistic fiction, his disgust at being fettered by the vicissitudes of the natural world, is made radiant with the knowledge that, though things exist, their existence is entirely arbitrary. He gets us coming and going, in other words. He's disgusted by the sheer fact of existence, and simultaneously horrified that it carries no meaning beyond itself. This is the pure nihilism of gore and the animating pathos of films such as Hostel and Saw.

When it comes to this kind of horror, human institutions are merely a thin film protecting us from the truly revolting nature of life. Materialist horror operates by peeling back the pathetically flimsy protections of culture to reveal the naked and vast horror of what it considers pure existence. The horror itself results from life being completely denuded of its mystery, or perhaps from finding mystery to be an inadequate illusion we use to spare ourselves from the bare facts of existence. There's something pornographic in this compulsion to expose in nihilistic horror. Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han defines the erotic against the pornographic as something that interrupts, tarries, and holds us at a distance, while the pornographic presents itself as bare fact delivered directly and without intermediary. Narrative is erotic, but facts are pornographic. The supernatural suggests a distance between subject and object, but the aptly named "torture porn" of films like Saw collapse the space between meaning and existence, reducing both to a false equivalency: a severed limb shown in close up is the totality of meaning in the universe.

Opposing The Thing, the bare fact, is The Presence. Kirk's fiction is rich with it. Though his output was relatively modest, comprising in total some twenty-two stories along with three novels that were written predominantly in short bursts throughout the '60s and '70s, Kirk's fiction burns even more incandescently for its brevity and focus. Collected and recollected in books such as Ancestral Shadows and The Surly Sullen Bell, Kirk's fiction isn't always easy to acquire. Special orders and calls to book dealers are occasionally necessary for a few of the more rare collections, yet he always remains timely: the dynamics of The Presence being echoed in both the subject matter of the works themselves and their occasionally enigmatic physical existence, suggesting a constant interplay between the ephemeral and eternal.

Kirk's fiction is suffused with The Presence. You find it sensed by both the older man and younger boy in "An Encounter by Mortstone Pond." The Presence haunts Stoneburner in "What Shadows We Pursue." We're almost tricked into thinking the eponymous Presence has betrayed itself by materializing in "Uncle Isaiah." Old House of Fear is absolutely permeated with Presence. But what is it? It might help to think of The Presence as the exact inverse of The Thing. If The Thing is horrible because it exists, and because it implies a nihilistic void in which the material world is all that exists, then The Presence is summarized by T. E. Hulme's phrase "Nothing suggests itself." The Presence, a sense of something that can't quite be acquired by the senses, intimates a metaphysical order lying outside the material world that also gives that world coherence.

The horror of The Thing is a plaintive howl of nihilism. The horror of The Presence is a humbling challenge to our pragmatic, everyday experience of the world. The Thing is disgusting, but The Presence is awful in the traditional sense of the word, as being full of awe. It unsettles and challenges while offering a terrible glimpse of the sublime. A few contemporary cinematic examples of this school of horror can be found in The Sixth Sense, The Others, and perhaps surprisingly The Exorcist.

45 years later, "The Exorcist" retains its ability to shock: The audience is forced to undergo horror in order to clarify the issue of good and evil in our fallen world. (Titus Techera, 12/03/18, Catholic World Report)

The spiritual crisis of evil is about God and the devil in a spiritual war for our souls. But there is a worldly dimension to this crisis. We see Regan's mother and her friends--successful, upper-class people with social and artistic pretensions, who nonetheless have something wrong with them that goes beyond sins and crimes we have learned to tolerate. They are respectable, but irresponsible. A socialite party, with its levity, is interrupted by a girl who is possessed, but no one can cares to notice; it is a rebuke of the preference for respectability over a moral effort to protect the innocent.

The exorcist of the title, Father Merrin (played wonderfully by Max von Sydow), only comes to the possessed girl in the third act. Exorcism is not our first idea--it is, in fact, our last resort. This is not merely a description of our liberal, secular society, but also of Church practice, which requires adequate scientific investigation before addressing the issue of possession. At the same time, the story uses this to dramatize how incredible evil is in the literal sense--we cannot believe what we are seeing, we do not know how to deal with it.

The story establishes two further points related to this problem. First, the beginning of the movie, which would seem to have nothing to do with the story of modern America, deals with the ancient past--the archaeological digging up of an ancient idol in the Middle East. We take a scientific attitude to old ideas about evil, thinking they cannot have any power now. We take a progressive view of power: we moderns have far more power now than has ever existed before, so what is there to fear? As a society, we have achieved unimagined powers; but individually, each one of us remains mortal and vulnerable and limited.

Second, Father Merrin himself has little doubt about the true character of the problem he is facing. He is able to explain to Father Karras that the experience of evil befalling a child, perhaps our greatest fear, is about desperation, which would make us "see ourselves as ugly and animal; to make us reject the possibility that God could love us." Redemption would seem impossible if we gave in to that desperation.

ACF Middlebrow #19: The Exorcist (Titus Techera,  December 1, 2018, ACF Podcast)
The podcast turns to horror, Catholic and scientific. I am joined by veteran and writer Scott Beauchamp to talk about William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist and about Russell Kirk's views on horror -- having read his very humanistic essay on horror in Modern Age. We talk about body horror as a way of confronting evil, of raising existential questions: Is being human special, after all, or just another meaningless accident? Next week, we turn to the scientific horror for comparison-The Thing.

Posted by at December 9, 2018 8:26 AM